Business mavericks rule!

Updated: Sep 30 2006, 05:49am hrs
The world of commerce crackled with possibility in the 1990s as computing transformed, and the Internet disrupted, business as usual. When the music stopped, the dot-com carnival gave way to a more sober period where entrepreneurial fervor abated and traditional business models seemed to reassert themselves.

But just below the surface in todays plodding environment, a new crop of business upstarts has been challenging incumbents in industry after industry. These mavericks, celebrated in a new book by Fast Company magazine alums William C Taylor and Polly LaBarre, are defined less by their use of technology than by what the authors term their strategic originality in approaching the market.

The roster of mavericks presented by Taylor and LaBarre is remarkably diverse, from Craigslist to Cirque du Soleil, but the common thread is energy, imagination, and an anti-establishment bent. Cranium Inc designed a line of games and toys as an educational family alternative to the vapid and violent products in toy stores.

Pixar Animation Studios and Home Box Office Inc developed high-quality, nonformulaic programming for movies and television. ING Direct USA, shunning credit cards, opened an Internet bank offering old-fashioned savings accounts with no minimum balances. Whole Foods Market built a supermarket chain around higher-priced healthy food and a commitment to the compassionate treatment of animals.

For each of these companies, and more than two dozen others profiled in the book Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, scheduled for release Oct 2, strategy begins with a critique of the products and culture of entrenched businesses.

The mavericks then offer an alternative vision that stems from their own values and can be embraced as a cause. Southwest Airlines, granddaddy of the mavericks, views itself as being in the freedom business, democratizing the skies with low fares and a focus on nonbusiness travelers. Craigslist is about spreading the word on goods and services, and ING Direct about helping consumers save money, both via the Internet.

HBO, write Taylor and LaBarre, is rooted in a distinctive point of view about how to create value in the entertainment business the strangely disruptive proposition that quality and originality, not mediocrity and mimicry, drive long-term prosperity.

All of this stands in marked contrast to the play-it-safe management practices of tweaking products or cutting costs just enough to stay a step ahead of the competition. Mavericks rewrite the playbook and define themselves in opposition to the conventional wisdom.

Each of them has a line of sight into the future, Taylor, the founding editor of Fast Company, said in an interview. So they are going to do what hasnt been done. They ask: Which kinds of products and services that people want arent being offered in the marketplace

The book, much like Fast Company itself, is stronger on insight and anecdote than on financial analysis, and its clear that many of the idealistic companies profiled are leaving money on the table, often intentionally. ING Direct, for examples, refuses to market credit cards because it wants to promote savings rather than debt. While the mavericks are undeniably shaking up their markets, half are privately held or venture-backed enterprises whose impact is difficult to measure.

In a caveat, the authors acknowledge they cant guarantee their mavericks wont suffer setbacks or reversals.

Still, their maverick designation serves as a useful template for considering businesses even those that arent cited as examples by Taylor and LaBarre.

Womens clothing retailer Eileen Fisher, for example, has long hired artists and therapists, rather than professional sales people, to work at its three dozen stores across the country.

Its eponymous founder didnt hire anyone who had sales experience in her store, noted Susan M Schor, the companys chief culture officer, who visited the Simmons School of Management in Boston last week. She wanted people who would really connect with customers and help them to pick out things that would work for them, rather than sell, sell, sell.

The maverick mindset extends to innovation and recruiting as well as rethinking products and business models, according to Taylor and LaBarre. Procter & Gamble, an established company turned maverick, is supplementing its traditional research and development by setting up listening posts around the world to cull smart product ideas from university labs, government institutes, and small companies. Internet search giant Google Inc, meanwhile, recruits former alligator wrestlers, puzzle champions, and neurosurgeons by publishing a top 10 list of why the best people should work for Google. Stock options and bonuses arent on the list, but being part of something that matters and working on products in which you can believe are.

Taylor said one of the authors goals is to get more business leaders thinking like mavericks. Most executives are overwhelmed by the ever-speeding-up treadmill of competition in their businesses, he said. Their response is to hunker down, cut costs, rein themselves in, and hang on for dear life. Theyve lost a sense of imagination and creativity.

NY Times / Robert Weisman